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The Way I See It…What’s the Point of Leadership Programmes?


Paul Kearns argues that training managers need to ask questions about the benefits to their business of leadership development programmes.

What’s the difference between a mileometer and a leadership programme? Well, one tells you how far you have progressed and the other doesn’t. In fact leadership programmes tell you very little. There is no commonly agreed scale or measure of leadership ability so those who specialise in leadership ‘development’ are unable to take any readings before they start. For the same reason they are equally unable to tell you whether, when or even where you might have arrived!

This doesn’t normally present management schools and leadership providers, or the development teams that employ them, with any particular problems though as long as no one bothers to ask too many questions about destinations. Everyone is happy enough, in effect, just enjoying the journey.

Unfortunately, though, leadership is now becoming just too important a subject for it to be treated in this rather cavalier manner any longer. Not only is the commercial sector asking tougher questions about the validity and effectiveness of leadership development, many public sector bodies like the police, education, the NHS and government departments themselves are all desperately trying to improve leadership capability and can no longer accept wishy-washy answers as to its efficacy.

But are those who promote leadership programmes ready for the challenge that such tough questions represent? In one particularly stark example a chairman of a large banking group declared, totally out of the blue, that he wanted to replace the leadership programme that the bank had been happily running for some years. Why? Well he just thought it needed revitalising. He didn’t say it was failing, as such, but if he thought a complete change was required that must have been what he was implying.

Personally, I think he had come to the wrong conclusion. He didn’t need a different leadership programme – he needed a completely different approach. Perhaps even a new paradigm? Instead of asking ‘how can we get better leaders?’ perhaps he should have asked ‘how can we become more effective?’

Now, as someone who has spent most of his career involved in training and development (the last 12 of those specialising in evaluation and ROI) I think I can say, with some confidence and authority, that I have learned what I believe are the fundamental rules for any development activity to have a high probability of success. Probably the most obvious, cardinal, rule that evaluation has taught me is that you must collect baseline measures before you start: particularly if you are hoping to measure any ROI that might result from changes in costs, sales, revenue and profit. Now this might sound like I am expressing an opinion but it is actually a fact of life.

Let’s go back to the mileometer. If you do not check this at the start of your journey you will not be able to measure how far you have travelled when you reach your destination. Similarly, if you want to go on a diet and monitor your weight loss the first thing you have to do is get on the scales and check your weight before you start. Measuring any sort of change necessitates taking both a before and an after measure. Leadership development is no different.

Unfortunately, many training and development practitioners are only slowly waking up to this fact and, when they do, it tends to make them feel very uncomfortable. They either feel inclined to deny that this rule applies to them or they just carry on regardless and ignore the rules; hoping no one will notice.

Alternatively, they argue that ROI is not an appropriate way to measure management development. Ask them why they continue to run such programmes and they will still reply ‘to improve leadership’ even though they cannot tell you what that improvement might look like. They think that somehow developmental activity can be an end in itself, even though it is not firmly rooted in the real needs of the business. Or they describe leadership programmes as behavioural programmes. That is, if behaviours appear to change then the programme must have been a success. But surely the only behavioural change worth having is the type that brings about improvement, progress and additional benefits to the organisation?

So what lessons does measurement teach us? Perhaps the main lesson is - stop thinking leadership development and start thinking organisational effectiveness and improvement. Along the way to this goal the people we develop might start to learn a thing or two about their own leadership potential and style but, much more importantly, they will know whether their new-found leadership skills are working or not. Even the behavioural change specialists will tell us that we need to reinforce the behaviours we want and I can’t think of any better way to reinforce behaviour than to measure and feedback results.


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